In preparation for this blog, I carried out a totally unscientific straw poll of the Irish people on my email address list, asking them who was the person in politics they most admired on the island, North and South, over the past 25 years. Around 50 people responded and – allowing for the left-of-centre, largely non-republican and non-unionist bias of that list – the results were not surprising. Mary Robinson topped the poll in the South and John Hume in the North, with Mary McAleese second in the South and David Ervine and Seamus Mallon joint second in the North. That’s two women in the top five.
Overall, of the 15 politicians nominated, one third were women. The others were all Northerners: Naomi Long, Monica McWilliams and Baroness May Blood.
That’s pretty good when one looks at the proportion of women in the parliaments of the two Irish jurisdictions, which are among the worst in the world. 19% of Northern Ireland Assembly members are women, the lowest in the United Kingdom (it’s 23% in the House of Commons, 35% in the Scottish Parliament and 40% in the Welsh Assembly).
In the South it’s even worse, with only 16% of the Dail’s members being women. This puts Ireland 88th in the world, behind such paragons of democracy and women’s equality as Burkina Faso, Gabon, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan and the United Arab Emirates (the US is barely any better at 16.8%). Ireland comes 25th out of 28 EU parliaments. And that woefully low figure – 16% – has never been exceeded in the 96 year history of Dail Eireann, which must have Countess Markievicz, the first woman elected to both the House of Commons and the Dail in 1918, turning in her grave.
However change is on the way in the Republic. A report to a parliamentary committee by Labour Senator Ivana Bacik (like me a member of the small Czech-Irish community) in 2009 led to a change in the law in 2012 which laid down that from the 2016 general election any party that does not have at least 30% of its candidates of each gender will see its state funding cut by half. This quota will rise to 40% in 2023.
The Bacik report found that there were five main barriers to women’s greater participation in politics in Ireland: childcare – women are far more likely to have this responsibility; confidence – women are less likely to put themselves forward as candidates; cash – women do not have the same access to finance (including from business) and other resources as men; culture – a culture that discriminates against women is prevalent, even in left-wing parties; and, most importantly, candidate selection procedures, which are secretive and stacked against women.
In its reform, Ireland has gone for ‘electoral gender quotas’, which require that a stated percentage of candidates nominated by parties must be of each gender. These are now in place in over 100 countries. They have led, for example, to the percentage of women in the Spanish parliament rising from 28% to 36% in the eight years up to 2008, and the proportion of women in the Belgian parliament rising from 5-10% before 1990 to over 23% in 1999.
But why do we want more women in our parliaments, apart from the need to tackle the glaring injustice that more than half the population should not have a miserable 16-19% representation in their legislatures? My personal answer is that male-dominated governments and parliaments have made such a mess of politics in recent years, women can’t but do better. It is said that women shy away from the tough, confrontational arena that is contemporary parliamentary politics. But who’s to say that the more holistic, consensual and outcome-focused (and less adversarial) approach that women bring to everything they do, would not also work in politics? The experience of other, more emancipated parliaments shows that vital issues like education and childcare move up the agenda when there are more female members. And women politicians’ skills in conflict resolution certainly contributed – through Mo Mowlam and the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition – to the peace process in Northern Ireland. As the former Fine Gael minister Gemma Hussey says: “Women bring different life experiences, priorities, knowledge and a different style of decision-making.” (There are exceptions in the last of these areas, of course: Margaret Thatcher springs to mind!)
Monica McWilliams, former leader of the Women’s Coalition, says that even when the structural barriers are largely removed, the overwhelmingly male culture of politics will probably remain. She recalls the humiliating treatment she and her colleagues received at the hands of many in the traditional parties, notably the Ulster Unionists, during the inter-party talks in the 1990s (barbs about going back to the kitchen, accusations of having affairs, even ‘mooing’ at them as if they were cows). She believes that even today many male politicians in Northern Ireland don’t realise how unacceptable and harmful this kind of behaviour is. And she notes that unlike in the Republic – where, for example, we now have women in all the top justice and security jobs as Minister for Justice, Chief Justice, Attorney General and head of the Garda Siochana – in the North there are now fewer women in key public positions than 10 years ago.
In politics the problem remains a common all-Ireland one. Look at the leadership of some of our political parties. Would we prefer to see Arlene Foster or Nigel Dodds as the next DUP leader? – in a reactionary party like the DUP a talented woman like Arlene doesn’t stand a chance. Or Mary Lou McDonald replacing the old warhorse Gerry Adams as leader of Sinn Fein in the Republic? – there is precious little chance of that happening either. Is Fianna Fail weaker for the way it has relegated a superb politician like Mary Hanafin to the sidelines? Wasn’t Joan Burton a better choice as Labour Party leader than Alex White or any other man in that party?
In the next Irish election I will be voting for candidates who espouse the values of care and compassion, community engagement and climate justice and who try to curb the voracious beast of contemporary finance capitalism as far as is compatible with maintaining a relatively prosperous society. For these reasons I will be looking for women candidates to support.
One final North-South observation. Isn’t it interesting that there are now twice as many Protestant women cabinet ministers (Jan O’Sullivan and Heather Humphreys) in Dublin as there are in Belfast (Arlene Foster)? There’s something for sectarian, sexist and anti-Irish unionists – and there are still plenty of them around – to think about.